Wednesday 28 February 2024

What I loved about Carrie Fisher

This blog first appeared on Malta Today. After it was published the death was also announced of her mother, Debbie Reynolds

For millions of Star Wars aficionados, she was, of course, their beloved Princess Leia.

But for me, what I enjoyed most about Carrie Fisher and where she really came to my attention, was her offbeat humour and dry wit, both in her books, but most of all in her television appearances as she did the talk show circuit. To appreciate the true essence of the woman you have to take a look at her interviews through the years, where even as a young actress, flung into notoriety (which is very different from fame, as she herself pointed out) because of her iconic role, you can see the intelligence, the self-deprecating humour of someone who does not take herself, or show business, at all seriously.

She had a healthy cynicism towards the life of celebrities because, as she once remarked, she had a front row seat as she watched the glittering careers of both her famous parents (Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher) as they waned and eventually fizzled out, and understood how devastating it could be. She knew that fame was always going to be a fleeting, transitory thing. Even as a 19-year-old doing press she had a certain self-assurance, and a certain ironic twinkle in her eye which is the hallmark of those who know that all the fuss which was being made about her was exaggerated hype and really had nothing to do with real life. She also knew that the flattering attention given to “stars” should never be confused with self-acceptance or validation and that it was a slippery slope which often led to actors’ insatiable desire to be loved.

In her case, because she was so intelligent, you could sense that it was almost bittersweet for her to realise that she would forever be known as the princess wth two doughnut-like buns over her ears, in a sci-fi film which seemed to her like one big joke. As she sat for one interview after another, being asked every conceivable question (but mostly just the same old questions), she found it harder and harder to “play along” and give fans what they wanted. In one interview with David Letterman as she described how the special effects are created against a blue screen, with many of the most exciting scenes on film actually being quite boring to shoot, she had to stop herself as she realized that she was ruining the illusion for those who were obsessed with the Star Wars franchise.

She went on to do other films of course, but she could never get away from the Princess Leia phenomenon so in the end she simply decided to embrace it and used it for her comedy material. “Who could resist my stunning, moving, layered performance, not unlike Mary Poppins?”. Significantly, the photo to promote her one-woman show “Wishful Drinking” shows a Princess Leia with her head down on the table, clutching a martini, with pills scattered nearby, seemingly passed out. For, despite all her wise cracks (or maybe because they helped her to cope), Carrie Fisher was a tortured soul, who suffered from bipolar disorder and had a long history of substance abuse. The pills to treat her mental health caused her to balloon in weight, which added to her depression.

She spoke and wrote about all this very openly, especially in the book Postcards from the Edge which was turned into a film. In fact, it was her writing which really made her who she is. What many did not know about her was that she was also a very successful and in demand script doctor, someone who comes in to “polish” a script and dialogue for a film before it makes it to the screen.

Carrie was flawed, certainly, but in her attempts to act tough to protect her own vulnerability, she was endearing.

Her last book The Princess Diarist seemed to bring her full circle, with the publication of the diaries which her 19-year-old self wrote during the filming of Star Wars. Predictably, even the hype surrounding the book ended up being not about her per se, but about her revelation that she had had an affair with Harrison Ford. Her last few weeks before the heart attack which took her life were spent promoting the book in the US and the UK. True to form she was funny and always ready with a quip, the dream guest for talk show hosts, who were often reduced to tears of laughter.

Carrie Fisher was haunted throughout her life by a role she could never escape and merchandised in every conceivable shape and form because she had signed away her “likeness” to George Lucas. And even at the end she could not get away from the character she had brought so vividly to life. As I write this, Twitter is ablaze with fans posting photos of themselves dressed up as Princess Leia, a touching tribute to Carrie Fisher from generations of adoring fans.

I can just hear her exasperated voice saying, “you have got to be kidding me!”

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